James S.A. Corey, “Caliban’s War” (2012) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – The second installment in the “Expanse” books marks a substantial improvement from the first, which wasn’t bad itself. The improvements in this yarn of adventure in a human-settled frontier solar system will make me explain parts of the world! Which I didn’t feel that much compelled to do in reviewing “Leviathan Wakes.” I guess the important thing to mention here is that the big plot point in “Leviathan Wakes” was that an evil megacorp recovered an alien weapon called the “protomolecule.” The protomolecule is like a germ that kills anything it touches and then reanimates it, but all mutated and fucked up. At first I kind of rolled my eyes at what seemed an obvious zombie play- 2011 being around high zombie season. But to the authors’ credit, the protomolecule is weirder than that- it disassembles life and reassembles it into strange shapes, towards some unknown purpose it is pursuing methodically.
We shouldn’t make more of this than it is- in the first book, it was mostly an occasion for zombies and some body horror. In the second, someone has weaponized the protomolecule to make monstrous super-soldiers. They’re pretty “Alien”-y — silent, black, big heads, big claws — but why mess with a proven concept? At the beginning of the book, one of these monsters takes out a bunch of up-armored space marines on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. This causes Earth and Mars, the two big solar system superpowers with interests on Ganymede, to get in a shooting war, because each thinks the other fragged its guys.
This leads to a chain of reaction we follow through our viewpoint characters, most of them new to the series. Martian space marine Bobbie survives the Ganymede monster attack, but through various circumstances winds up in fish out of water situations working for Earth-bound UN (the UN runs Earth, a bit of a laugh but whatever) apparatchik Avasarala, another viewpoint character. Ganymedan botanist Prax finds his daughter kidnapped just as stuff collapses on his moon- coincidence?! No, obviously. And of course, there’s Holden, captain and dad-figure to a crew of misfits on the space corvette Rocinante. They all find themselves in assorted races against time — stop the Mars-Earth war, stop the polymolecule which even those who want to weaponize can’t control, find Prax’s daughter. Naturally, these all come together, as do the characters.
The new characters are a mix. A lot of Bobbie’s character is “she’s a woman, and a badass, and physically huge!” which is cool but not a big deal. Prax is analytical, unused to adventure, dedicated to finding his kid, the kind of NPC you need to keep safe on escort missions in a lot of video games. I liked Avasarala, it was cool to have an old lady bureaucrat as a main character in this kind of story, doing political machinations and shit. She wore a little thin as the book went on — we know, she swears a lot and likes her husband — and she’s basically beat for beat Olenna Tyrell from “Game of Thrones” (one of the writers was George R.R. Martin’s assistant!), but is still pretty good. There’s more of a wrinkle to Holden — being involved in violence messes with him — than in the first book but he’s still what I think of as a “perspective dullard.” Ever notice how often main characters are way dull? Harry Potter is the king of perspective dullards, but they’re everywhere, and Holden is one.
That’s fine, though, I’m not here for a character study. I’m here for action, and the authors — “James Corey” is a pen name, it’s two dudes — deliver pretty well. The action isn’t all violence, either. Prax is at his best showing us Ganymede experiencing an ecological collapse after Mars and Earth start shooting each other in its atmosphere- turns out, space colonies are fragile! Avasarala does some fun political maneuvering with people (men, mostly) who underestimate her, but not so much as to make her actions low stake. Bobbie is slower to come to her own but does in the end, with some pretty cool space/Jovian moon battles. And Holden ties it all together, a little tiresome at times, but shepherding the action out to the moons of Jupiter for a big showdown. Then there’s a pretty good sting at the end to set up the inevitable sequel. All in all, a good ride.
There’s a bit of the “Chamber of Secrets” problem here. The first two Harry Potter books ended with confrontations with various manifestations of Voldemort in the school basements. So far, every Expanse book ends with a raid on a remote protomolecule-infested lair. I remember wondering if Harry Potter books would always end that way, then I read “Prisoner of Azkaban,” the best Harry Potter book, which broke the mold. “Abaddon‘s Gate,” the next Expanse book, should maybe mix it up, but the action in “Caliban’s War” beats anything Rowling came up with. ****’